Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Black and White Swan

A couple of years ago I found myself driving through the industrial wastelands that make up the nexus between Belgium, Holland and Germany. The flat landscape rolled by under a heavy grey sky as I towed a trailer filled with our furniture from one part of Europe to another. I had passed through this area on several occasions before, and it was always my least favourite part of the journey due to the sheer dispiriting glumness of the scenery. It’s a landscape of business parks, factories and factory farms, truck stops and power stations. Rivers are corseted by concrete and horizons are cluttered with the droopy spider webs of power lines. Just to the north lies Rotterdam, Europe’s largest container port and, until recently, the world’s busiest, and to the south is Maastricht, famed as the place where the EU was birthed but nowadays a place where they are developing synthetic meat grown in test tubes. We are, of course, within the magnetic range of Brussels itself and the motorways around it buzz with high powered people driving high powered cars. 

From space this region is lit up with a particular intensity. It’s one of the most densely populated and industrialised places on Earth, marking it out as an economic power house. But down at ground level, apart from the occasional bird in the sky, the only other life forms visible in this landscape were some peculiarly muscular cows that stood around dociley in fields besides the motorways. Until I saw the swan. I was queuing up with all the other cars and lorries to pay a tunnel toll when I glanced out of the window and saw it lying in a concrete drainage culvert. It was an adult, perfectly white and immaculate but for a black scorch mark on one of its wings. Above it were the high voltage cables that had ended its life. 

For some reason, whenever I think of the the EU I think of that electrocuted swan lying there on the concrete. No doubt, later on, a municipal sanitation operative would have come along with a machine and taken away the dead swan along with the fast food cartons, cigarette butts and bottles of urine that truckers routinely toss out of windows across Europe.

I have been thinking about that black and white swan again recently with all the brouhaha about the latest European elections. There’s been a lot of talk about shocks and landslides and earthquakes, not least here in the UK where the anti-EU UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) managed to get around a third of the vote from people who could be bothered to turn off their televisions for fifteen minutes, making them the clear winners. Elsewhere across Europe there were more ‘extremist’ wins, including the Front National (FN) in France and the Danish People’s Party (DPP) in Denmark—although to be fair they have been a force for a long time. Across the board, in country after country, voters elected to deliver a blow to the established parties. People, it seems, are pissed off.

And is it any wonder? Day after day we are told by a compliant media that the economy is in great shape—that we’ve never had it so good. And yet day after day more and more people find themselves unable to pay their rent, put food on the table or get a job that pays more than subsistence wages. Even if you manage to get a job, you’ll more than likely be put on a zero hours contract, meaning that you are officially employed but will be unable to claim benefits should your manager decide to put you on one hour a week. Many thousands, if not millions, have tried to escape this new form of slavery and have been forced to declare themselves as self-employed. But being self-employed offers even less of a safety net than a zero hours contract, even though it is good news for the politicians who can crow on about a ‘nation of entrepreneurs’ and falling unemployment statistics. 

Anyway, for me, the fascinating thing about this latest election was the way the British media (mis)handled UKIP. The two mainstream media news sources that I read most regularly are the Guardian, which likes to see itself as progressive and attempts to squeeze most news stories through the prism of gender politics, and the Telegraph, which is properly right-wing nasty and sounds like a crazed and drunken homophobic uncle forced to attend a gay wedding on a wind farm. I sometimes read the amusingly-named Independent, if I haven’t anything better to do, and occasionally torment myself by looking at the BBC, whose main objective seems to be to bore you to death. If I watch TV news, it’ll be on Channel 4, which sometimes has some interesting documentaries.

And here’s the amusing thing, every single one of these MSM news sources tried to bring down UKIP, with disastrous results. Just look back at any of the stories published a week or two ago about UKIP or its leader Nigel Farage and you can get your UKIP bingo cards out. The cards feature the following words: racist, fruitcake, sham, anti-gay, xenophobic, fiasco, coward, gaffe, anti-immigrant and farce. It became quickly obvious that the MSM right across the spectrum (with the exception of the populist tabloids such as the Mail and the Sun) were out to get UKIP, which represented a threat to their respective constituencies, and had decided to work as a pack to bring this maverick down. No stone was left unturned to dig up dirt on Nigel Farage, UKIP or and of his merry band of followers, including a dotty Greek billionaire who believed that humankind would perish because women were allowed to wear trousers. Comments sections were flung wide open underneath online articles and much rabid hatred ensued, with ‘fascist’ being the most over-used word.

The thing was, every time such an attack took place, it looked more and more like our Fourth Estate was trying to protect the established powers that be, and the mask slipped just a little bit further. And every time it did so, a few more people concluded that if the media were so anti UKIP then UKIP might just be the party for them. Which begs the question, what is the point of having a media if all it does is amplify the status quo?

Now, at this point, some people might think that I’m a UKIP supporter. I’ll put your mind at rest and reveal that I voted for the Green Party—the only party that offers even an iota of a chance at making our predicament a little less painful. But the same media machine that accidentally propelled UKIP to a win was able to crush the Greens into the dust, as they always do, by never mentioning them. If they ever do get a mention we are effectively told that the Greens are not a serious party because they don’t embrace limitless capitalism. And they only have a single issue, which is, er, everything that's important.

And so the polite, sandal wearing, permaculture-practicing Greens were once again trounced (although not the one I voted for, who was elected to the European Parliament) and the beery, loud mouthed ‘normal blokes’ UKIP were propelled to victory.

There has been plenty of wailing, but I feel strangely reassured by the result. Democracy seems to be working, for once. I hope I don't lose any friends for saying this, but I have to say what I believe in. I don’t think it does any good screaming ‘fascist’ at people who voted for UKIP or accusing them of being ‘racists’ for wanting to limit the number of people coming into the UK. To do so is immensely disrespectful of people who have to put up with real fascists and dictators and who live in fear of being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night and disappearing without a sound—a fate that happens to thousands of people around the world every year.

So, I’m not for UKIP, but I am all in favour of calling in the EU and examining what exactly it is that we’re signing up for. I know why a lot of people hate UKIP, and it has more to do with hating the types of people who vote for them than the actual party. Comparisons with Hitler are not particularly useful as anyone with even a scant knowledge of history will know that fascism doesn’t flourish easily on British soil (it prefers continental Europe—one of the reasons I moved back here). The Greens should learn a thing from UKIP and be the ‘nice’ anti EU party, such as Italy’s 5 Star Movement has done.

I haven’t always been against the EU because, like most people, I bought the idea that it was all about peace and stability. More importantly, in the minds of most, it was all about not having to visit a bureau de change when you went on holiday. And I’ve always been utterly European. I’ve lived in five different European countries and speak several of its languages. My family spans three countries and I don’t think I could live on any other continent. 

When I was doing my gap year at university in 1992 I worked for the the Treasury in Westminster. I had to write my economics dissertation that year and my tutor suggested I write about monetary union in Europe. The Treasury library was more than happy to order me a load of books (at the taxpayer’s expense) detailing the ‘inevitability’ of full monetary union, and my tutor suggested that he’d give me a good mark no matter how badly I’d written it ‘As long as you conclude the inevitability of full monetary union,’. I did and he did.

Ever since then we’ve been swept along on a railroad of propaganda and fake ‘choices’. The EU does not want member states to hold referendums on important matters as was so clearly demonstrated early on with the Danish referendum where they voted ‘no’ (and the subsequent referendum where they were more or less ordered to vote ‘yes’) and the later enlargement treaties. In fact, it is acting more and more like a federal dictatorship. As far as I’m aware, nobody in the mainstream media has focussed on the fact that the EU effectively got rid of two democratically-elected heads of state (in Greece and Italy) and installed technocratic puppets to enact austerity. The patient and tolerant people in Spain, Portugal and Greece are putting up with the kind of grinding austerity without end that people in northern Europe probably wouldn’t be able to bear (although we’ll soon have to). And I’m still waiting for the media outrage over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between itself and the US which would effectively hand over control of democratic rights to transnational corporations.

That last one bears repeating. The EU and the US are currently trying to impose a trade deal on us in the name of growth that would take away our basic democratic rights. Monsanto will be able to sue your government if they decide to ban roundup. Big pharma will be able to take your country to court if it tries to protect children’s health by, say, reducing the availability of sugary drinks. 

Is that the kind of brave new world that we want? It makes my head spin that progressives and people on the left still see the EU as a benign entity that is somehow a force for good. It might have been once, but to think that it still is is to place blind faith in the idea that power does not somehow beget more power. And yet even when it was regarded as ‘benign’ by ‘pro-Europeans’ it was still enacting the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy—possibly two of the most environmentally destructive and famine-inducing policies in world history. We Europeans enjoyed swimming in milk lakes and climbing grain mountains while people in Africa starved as a result and the seas were emptied of marine life.

I, for one, enjoyed the early years of the EU. I remember the joy of getting my first red European passport, and the thrill of passing through an open border without having to show that passport. I also took great delight in seeing some of our home-grown predators have their wings clipped by the EU and seeing victims of power abuse find redemption in the European Court of Human Rights. I proudly called myself a European and fervently hoped that Britain would also adopt the euro currency. You could hop on a sleek train in London and get off in a short time later in Paris. It all seemed so modern and progressive. 

There were, of course, some people shouting ‘danger!’ from the rooftops—but I didn’t listen to them. These people got lumped in with the xenophobes, the Little Englanders and the crusty British cargo culters who wore navy blazers and swilled scotch in country golf clubs. 

But has the EU now ironically become a threat to Europeans themselves? An optimist would say that it brings people together, promotes growth and acts as a bulwark against other superpowers. But step outside the mainstream media for a moment and you might equally conclude that it has transformed into a morally bankrupt powerhouse of rapacious capitalism—an engine for keeping northern Europe economically afloat at the expense of the southern Europeans. Remember, Mario Draghi pledged to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep the euro currency from imploding, even if that means toppling democratically elected leaders, pumping billions of euros into bankrupt financial institutions and selling voters to corporate interests for a fistful of dollars. Just what kind of democracy is this?

If Greece, for example, were allowed to leave the euro and bring back the drachma its problems would evaporate almost overnight. Its new (old) currency would be correctly valued by the markets, making its exports much more competitive. Tourists would flock there to get a good value holiday, people would buy Greek products again and, equally importantly, Greeks would feel like they were in charge of their own affairs once more and would not feel compelled to support parties like the Golden Dawn. But, of course, the ECB will not allow that to happen. The euro must not be compromised in any way, shape or form. And so the Greeks get poorer, are forced to sell their beaches and national treasures just to pay the interest on their unpayable loans, and the Germans retain their ability to earn money from China and the media says things like ‘the worst is over’ and ‘the crisis has been resolved’. And the anger and frustration spreads and grows like a cancer.

So people have voted UKIP, FN and DPP out of frustration at not being listened to. These things happen with predicable regularity when the economic conditions turn sour. Charismatic leaders attempt to scapegoat minorities and make all sorts of promises, even if they aren’t able to deliver on them. People are fed up with the usual bunch of clowns harping on about economic recovery and change, egged on by their media lapdogs, and promising nothing more than business as usual while enriching their pals at their expense. And now, in the European Parliament, we have an unholy rabble of people who want to expand the EU standing next to people who want to destroy the EU as well as the usual environmentalists, conservatives, communists and socialists. Talk about an odd mix. 

So what do all these ‘political earthquakes’ add up to? Could it be the first faint rumble of the beginning of the end for the grand European project? Was the EU just a freak expansion of power straddling the pinnacle of the age of cheap oil? Will people rise up and claim back their democratic sovereignty before it is too late to do so? We can only hope so because if the EU carries on much longer in its present configuration it can only end in one thing, and that was the very thing its creation was supposed to prevent. 


  1. Thanks Jason. Excellent post. I really share your thoughts on this, right down to that bleak area of Belgium that used to smell of chemical plants and piss. Isn't the EU parliament situated there?

    UKIP have surprised everyone. My first impressions of Nigel Farage were shattered watching the TV debates with Nick Clegg. Farage actually answered the questions put to him, unlike his opponent who just spouted rubbish about drawbridges and fantasies. Can't believe I voted for that idiot last time! (We didn't have a Green candidate standing at the time.) I wouldn't vote UKIP either, but at least they are offering an alternative to the privileged boys club. As you say it is very tempting to vote for them, just because the media is so against them and to scare the pants off the mainstream politicians ;-)

    I don't think the EU will go down without a fight, and they are so good at fabricating lies to control the masses. My feeling is that the lies and drastic measures will just escalate until collapse. I hope I'm wrong and we have a referendum to change everything.

    1. Oh, yes, I forgot the smell of the chemical plants and the oil cracking refineries.

      I never watched the TV debates as I'm really not interested in the ritual theatre of politics where three men stand in a line and boast about how much growth they can deliver!

  2. I've given up on politics and politicians to ever be able to solve our big problem.
    Human growth has caused it and asking humans and their constructs to do anything about it is a complete waste of time.
    Do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do in the time you have available.

    1. I see casting a vote a bit like tossing a coin in a wishing well - it's a tiny ritual and the chances of it being successful are about equal.

  3. Hey Jason - another good post - thanks. I guess I used to be like you, and carry the hope of a 'unified' read, peaceful EU. Memories are indeed short and this generation does not remember what the EEC, now EU was developed for. I got a case of the heebeegeebees a year or so back when Angela Merkel stated that 'peace is not guaranteed'. At the time I took it for a warning - and a wise one - but since the central banks keep on asset-stripping the natives with no end in sight, now I'm not so sure. Perhaps she really meant it, or perhaps it was cynically disingenous excuse to carry on asset-stripping. I guess we'll never really know that for sure, but the euro election results are a sure sign that people just don't believe it anymore - and really, who can blame them?

    I'd be interested to know where you see the flashpoints in the ongoing internal strains of the european experiment. Where do you see conflict? Do you see another round of strife similar to the 30s? It looks more and more likely to me.

    On a completely different note - are you still going to the EEE conference on Sunday? I finally decided I could squeeze in the time so I'll be going after all. It would be good to meet up again - and meet JMG. I managed to lose your phone number and email address when I lost my phone in Redruth so perhaps you could email me at msouthward [at] gmail [dot] com and let me know your plans!

    Cheers, Matt

    1. Hi Matt. I have no idea where and when the cracks will split open but a good guess might be somewhere in the Balkans. I wouldn't be surprised to see a few assassinations/murders at some point, like the one in Spain last week. Of course, the wheels could really come off if/when Putin decides to turn off the gas.

      I see that the EU is frantically devising a new 'energy security' plan, which involves - yep - LNG imports and widespread fracking. No mention of renewables or conservation then. Plus ca change, as they say in France.

      Sorry to hear you lost your phone - alas I won't be able to make it to the EEE conference on Sunday. I lost my 'zero hours, zero contract' job a couple of weeks ago and am almost literally penniless at the moment! Please send my apologies to JMG - I'm meeting up with him in Glastonbury the following weekend.

    2. Sorry to hear about your lack of work - a similar thing happened to me back in October and we've been struggling since. I have my new job now, so that helps, but it's definitely getting tougher! It's also a shame that you can't make the conference, though I'm glad you'll get to meet JMG whilst he's over. What's he up to in Glastonbury - sightseeing or something more Druidic?

      I'm hoping that me and the family will be down in Cornwall full time from July - so hopefully we can meet up over the summer.

  4. A very good read, and very interesting for me to compare it to what is happening here in the US. Our Repubocrats and Demicans spout the same growth nonsense and similarly we are stuck with an increasingly difficult situation for most people while the media claims we're in recovery. Seems to me like a classic double bind. One can hardly blame people for wanting to hear some discussion of real difficulties and voting for people who are willing to engage in that discussion. Unfortunately resolving double binds does not come easily.

    What is different is that we don't have a recent (within living memory of over half the folks now alive) creation of a unified government between the US and other countries as people in most of Europe do. We have the same old government we've had since long before the living memory of just about everyone here, folks in Hawaii and Alaska excepted. Thus we direct our blame at the national government instead of at the EU as in Europe. This is one source of JMG's fears that the US could crack apart, which would add to the general misery of the predicament for many, probably most and possibly all.

    I'm sorry about your job loss and hope something opens for you soon. Enjoy meeting JMG and take good care of him while he's there!

    1. Hi Claire - oh, we also direct our blame at the national governments too. In effect, we now have a situation where both parties (national governments and the EU) can blame each other for policy failures. And even here in the UK we're busy cracking up. Scotland may shortly vote for independence soon, and even down in Cornwall where I live there is talk of gaining more autonomy from Westminster.

      Interesting times!

  5. Interview with Jason Heppenstall now UP!



  6. Hello Jason,

    Thanks for this post, which contains so many remarks and information, that I find it hard to select the points I want to comment on. But let me try.
    To begin with, coming from Holland myself, I immediately wondered what you mean with "the industrial wastelands". What was your driving route exactly? Was it through Noord-Brabant (NL), or did you take Flemish highways? Where did you take the ferry to England, or did you try to reach the Chunnel?
    Then, I looked up the muscular cow you were describing, as I thought you were pretty lucky to see cows at all, since most are kept indoors year round. Well, I have never seen such a cow in Holland or Belgium, and as you are also addressing an American audience which already has a distorted image of my country ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/euthanasia-in-the-netherlands-rick-santorums-bogus-statistics/2012/02/21/gIQAJaRbSR_blog.html, I feel the image of the cow needs some nuance.
    The image of the swan, used in the title, was more more striking, but I do not understand why it makes you think of the EU? Is the EU the dead swan, electrocuted by bigger forces than it can handle?
    "Across the board, in country after country, voters elected to deliver a blow to the established parties."
    Holland was not among these countries, as the euro-sceptical PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for the Freedom), led by Geert Wilders) lost a seat and the pro-European parties won.
    Your analysis of the UKIP was most interesting to read. Thank you for that.
    As for your analysis of Europe, I might well be one of those optimists who says that "it brings people together, promotes growth and acts as a bulwark against other superpowers".
    I was back in Europe in March (France, Spain and Portugal), and what struck me as very different from my last time on French "autoroutes" (2006), was the number of foreign number plates. Especially Eastern European countries have become common road users in the meantime. I counted around twenty different nations each day.
    The problem that I see with the EU is the lack of a common culture and language. It is a strange paradox that the more Europe integrates, the less its inhabitants speak each other's languages. When I was in school, three foreign languages were obligatory for at least a number of years of everyone's school career (English throughout the whole secondary school French for three years or more and German for two years or more). I had English and French for nine years consecutively, and German for five years. Put a bit of Latin and Spanish in the mix, which allows me to communicate also south of the French border and understand what Italians are talking about, and you can see the difference with nowadays, when broken English seems to be the lingua franca of the Union, and people no longer bother to speak each other's tongue.
    More to come in another comment...

  7. Part 2 of my comment is about the upcoming Ontario elections, the province where my family and I reside part of the year.
    One of the parties is called "PC" = Progressive Conservatives..... Well, what to make of that? I am not into Canadian elections as we are no Canadian citizens. But that name really makes me wonder: whose side are they on?
    One of their spear points: "replace the subsidy program for wind and solar with an affordable energy policy".
    Because Canada is by far the most expensive country we have ever lived in (like you, I "collect" foreign abodes), I can well understand that "affordable" speaks loud and clear to Canadians. But the short-sightedness makes me sigh (sigh).

    1. Hi Jeannette - thanks for your considered comments! I didn't wish to imply that Holland is a horrible place - far from it! It is really the stretch of Belgium/northern France where all the infrastructure of power stations and factories, truck stops etc all converge into one big concrete mess that I was considering. As for the cows, these were strictly Belgian cows and I saw lots of them standing around in fields.

      I have criss-crossed this area about 10 times in recent years and have been struck by the contrast between the modern human-built environment and the older towns and cities built when people has aesthetic taste.

      As for the eastern European cars you saw in Spain these are likely to be owned by Spaniards - it is much cheaper to go and buy a car in, say, Lithuania compared to Spain.

      In terms of language, well, you Dutch are better at English than most English people. It is shameful that in my country so few people speak foreign languages. My father always told me that if a foreign person didn't understand English then you just needed to shout a little louder! Lucky I didn't follow his advice ...

  8. Hi Jason,

    I'd say that much production will return to the Northern Hemisphere nonethenless - The current "free trade"consensus is based upon the assumption that Chinese workers will continue to work for almost nil, supported by inexpensive energy to transport all goods. However, strikes are driving salaries upwards and energy is returning to the "normal price" it had before the oil rally we've been through - Hence we'll see more production "come back".

    As a political party is nothing but a way of making compromises and deals, what is really needed is organization against mismanagement. Then political parties can come after and Govermental policies will turn for the better. This was what brought New Deal and Keynesianism from the 1940's and onward. Unfortunatly there are not yet any movement like the Labour movement or nationalist/independence movement (third world) like it was back then on a global level to bring this forward.

    A good thing you moved to UK from Denmark last year - Esbjerg-Harwich will suspend its service from October onward: http://www.dfdsseaways.co.uk/about-us/press/press-releases/new-sulphur-rules-cause-closure/

  9. Many of us in the US see the TTIP for the threat it is, as well. Hard as our administration is trying to keep it secret, enough info is leaking out that the general outlines keep getting scarier. And workers here have bitter thoughts about NAFTA, so there's plenty of opposition. Not, to your point, that much is in the media about it.

  10. I forgot to add, for the US, the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership also now under negotiation offers similar benefits to transnational corporations (who are allowed to help write it, while it's being kept secret from the rest of us) and is facing similar opposition here.

  11. Hi Jason. Thanks for the link! I didn't know that you had a blog...

    A thoroughly good analysis of the European situation. The tighter that the screws are turned, the less pressure is allowed to escape from the system and the more it builds. About the Greece situation, of course reintroducing the Drachma is the way to go, but on the other hand it would mean that the ECB acknowledged that the debts were in fact bad and thereby having to take a big hit to both their assets and earnings. It will have a domino effect with Spain, Portugal and Ireland as well. Even France is feeling the strain of increased bond risk rates. Once debt exceeds about 90% of GDP (the US is about 100% I think at the moment) for a country, it is an indicator of a failed state and there is little possibility that the loans can be repaid. Follow the money, it never lies. The European Union benefits from extending those loans as it is a form of rent seeking plus it provides ready markets for their goods. They ain't going to China...

    Also, if the ECB takes a big hit on those PIGS loans then it will impact their ability to import energy whether it is in the form of fuels, renewable systems, feed or food. It really is that bad. At least the UK can print its own reserve currency - as they've been doing in recent years.

    We have the PUP here lead by a charismatic billionaire. They now hold the balance of power in the federal parliament so effectively run the country. He is one to watch because I get the impression that he speaks crazy stuff 50% of the time and then mentions the unmentionable real world topics that impact people for the remainder of that time. We get the leaders we deserve!


    1. Hi Cherokee - yep, I have a blog!

      Respect for your work at your farm. I'm doing a similar thing over here but in very different ecological conditions. Here, too much rain is likely to be a problem, rather than drought or fire. I might have mentioned it before but I once spent a few months in Shepperton. Not the best place on Earth, but an interesting part of the world. I was working on a huge farm picking fruit, like many foreigners.




I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.